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13th September 1998

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A look at 'Anna Weiss'

The other side of the story

By Christopher Tribble

Throughout most of its hour and a half, "Anna Weiss" is not about this young woman - a friend? a social worker? a lover? It is about two other people: about Lynn and her discovery of memories of an abusive relationship with her father; about her father, David, and his inability, his refusal to remember - because the events did not happen? - because he wishes to forget? We have already been given a clue about the problem of appearances.

Those of us who stood to applaud the final performance of the Joint Effort Company's performance of "Anna Weiss" at Bishop's College Auditorium were applauding a courageous ensemble who had given us an evening of theatre which we will not forget. Sparely but beautifully staged by the Joint Effort Company, the play takes us into places we would rather not visit; where trust has been broken and the most universal taboos overturned. By asking us to go on this journey, "Anna Weiss" also makes us question what we see, question what we remember, and it is here that the play is most disturbing. For if we cannot remember what we have done, or if we remember falsely, who are we?

The play is simply structured; two acts which were (rightly) presented without an intermission. In the first act we see two women moving house, their lives reduced to suitcases and boxes of books. We do not know where they are going, where they have been. We come to understand that Lynn has undergone some form of therapy during which she has begun to remember the most shocking sexual abuse imposed on her by her father. We learn that she now wishes to confront her father with the facts as she sees them, and we also learn that Anna Weiss, her therapist and friend is unhappy that Lynn has made this decision. In the second act we meet the father, hear his side of the story. We are buffeted by the confusion of the lives and memories of the people on stage, and have to deal with our own memories, our own lives.

Throughout all of this we learn to live with ambiguity. From the outset we have no information about Anna and Lynn's relationship. Is Anna a relative, a friend, a professional counsellor? What is Lynn looking for as she rummages through her box of books? As we begin to make answers for our own questions we also learn some of the same lessons that the characters on stage are learning. The photograph that Lynn needs to find shows her father and herself at a picnic. It is the kind of family photo that millions of families have in their albums. Lynn is nine years old. Her father has his arm round her shoulder. They are both smiling for the camera Lynn's mother must be holding.

Yet Lynn remembers that before the photo was taken, in a quiet place in the woods, her father had raped her.

In dealing with David, Lynn's father, we have to confront a man's life in ruins because of someone else's memories. Things that he cannot remember, does not remember, have destroyed his life. We have to balance a man's ability to remember so beautifully - the events of his daughter's birth: "kissing her head through the blood"; his childhood bedroom and the scratchy jumpers his mother knitted - with his refusal to remember his daughter's account of what happened between them? "Raped anally and vaginally ?" We are taken on an emotional roller-coaster where it is sometimes easier to believe old prejudices - David's assumption that the women's solidarity must be premised on the lesbian exploitation of the weaker by the stronger, that Lynn's memories are a "sick fantasy" imposed on her by Anna - than it is to accept the ugliness of what we are all capable of doing to one another, of how base we can be.

At the end of the play we are not given comfortable answers, although we are invited to share the judgement that Lynn is now able to make. So we judge David more on the basis of his behaviour to the two women than how he might have been; he does not come out well. We can judge Anna too, as in the end the play is about Anna Weiss, who she is, what she does. And with Lynn we found ourselves on her side. We stood and applauded.

This has been an account of the play, but it says little of the performance, and it would be ungracious and unjust not to give credit here. Having only recently arrived on the Island, I know little of the tradition of English language theatre in Sri Lanka, but if the Joint Effort Company's production is typical I look forward to many years of revelation and pleasure. This was an ensemble piece, so I will not single out any one performance. Each member of the cast had great strength, great integrity, and each found ways of making a play written in one cultural setting make sense for an audience from another. As a man, I watched Rohan Ponniah's performance as Lynn's father with a sense of unwelcome recognition. No, thank God, I have not done these things, but the boundary between what I might do and what I do remains uncomfortably narrow. As a man I also watched the profoundly dignified performances of Nimmi Harasgama as Lynn and Ranmali Mirchandani as Anna, and was moved to wonder at the strength of these women, at how we survive.

Sensitively and imaginatively directed by Steve de la Zilwa, and with Design and Lighting by Kumudhini Saravanamuttu and Thushan Dias respectively, the Joint Effort Company should be congratulated for their contribution to theatre in Colombo. "Anna Weiss" is not a piece about the sexual abuse of children, a theme that is, I know, topical in Sri Lanka at the moment. It is more complex and more complete than that, and makes us reflect as much on who we ourselves are as on the identity of Anna Weiss. I hope that the company and their sponsor, the British Council, will be able to find time and resources to share this experience to other centres in Sri Lanka.

Rescue your skin!

Monitor your make-up for safer hygiene to prevent infection

No one thinks of her make-up as a bacteria farm. But lipstick, eye shadow, mascara and foundation can harbour harmful micro organisms if not stored and used properly. Some common-sense guidelines can help prolong make-up's life expectancy, says John Bailey, director of the Office of Cosmetics and Colours for the Food and Drug Administration of United States.

He offered some guidelines for make-up safety both at the store and at home. Cosmetics contain preservatives, Bailey says, which usually do the job of killing off bacteria under normal conditions. But time and use weaken the preservatives, which can lead to problems.

Make-up isn't like food - the company isn't required to list an expiration date on their products which means shelf lives can vary. Generally, most make-up, if kept sealed in a cool, clean area away from light, can last from six months to a year.

Bailey suggests marking each item with the purchase date so there's no guessing. Check your make-up periodically for signs of deterioration such as a strange odour, discolouration or a change in texture, and immediately toss anything suspicious.

Be very careful when trying on samples at a store. Chances are legions of women have been there before you, leaving who knows what behind.

Ask the salesperson for singleuse samples. If those aren't available, find out what precautions are being taken to make sure the samples are clean. If there's any doubt, don't use them.

Lipstick: Sampling lipstick at the make up counter is a gamble. If there are no single-use samples, wiping the top of the lipstick with a tissue is the least you should do. You also can ask if there's a light spirit solution available to soak the tissue in first. Store sealed lipsticks in a cool, dry place (not the glove compartment of your car). And don't share them with anyone, even your best friend. You might also be sharing cold sores and the herpes virus.

Eye shadow and pencils: The eyes aren't just the window to your soul, they're a delicate area that can become infected. Pencils and eye shadow applicators can be dangerous if they're contaminated with harmful bacteria and then scratch or harm the eye tissue, allowing an infection to take hold.

In some cases infections can be extremely serious leading to blindness. That makes store tryons risky. Ask for untouched samples or try the product on your hand (as long as there are no cuts or open sores). Don't use eye make-up if you have an eye infection, and throw out all the cosmetics you were using when you discovered it. You could re-contaminate yourself.

Powder/blush brush: If you use a brush at the make-up counter, don't put it on skin that has open cuts or sores. If the bristles are contaminated with bacteria, they could be transferred. Don't share your own brushes, and wash them periodically.

Mascara: Some mascaras contain spirit, which evaporates as the product is opened and used. As the mascara gets thicker, the inclination is to add water - but don't. It can create a breeding ground for micro-organisms.

In fact, don't add anything at all, including saliva, distilled water or spirit. Make sure the tube is sealed between uses and kept in a cool, dark place. And don't ever put mascara on while driving. One bad pothole and you could have bigger problems than arriving to work without make-up on.

Foundation: If properly handled and stored, foundation can last a year or so. Variables include how often it's used, how well it's sealed, and where it's stored. To protect the product's purity, don't leave it open on the sink or counter for long while using it.

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